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Worldwide Pants

By John Dicker

Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon

By James Sullivan

Gotham, 303 pages, $26

 

No one who’s reconnoitered a bookstore these last few years can be ignorant of a trend in nonfiction that might as well be called the microhistory. Best known is Mark Kurlansky’s triptych of Salt, Cod, and 1968, but there have been tomes on candy and fast food, and a few substances barely worth a magazine fluff-piece. Now firmly established, the trope requires writers to push in on seemingly ubiquitous matter for an investigative close-up. Embedded in its seemingly small story is a much larger one that speaks to something profound about our past and future.

Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work anyway.

Enter James Sullivan, who has written for a host of publications, including Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and The Boston Globe. Few would argue against his basic contention that jeans are iconically American. “Blue jeans—not soft drinks, or cars, or computers—are the crowning product of American ingenuity,” Sullivan writes. “They are timeless—flawlessly designed, yet infinitely versatile.”

Sullivan notes that jeans—like so many significant American inventions (see baseball, rock & roll, etc.)—were not invented by an individual, but instead evolved. This evolution is chronicled thoroughly, from Gold Rush days when denim was developed by outfitters catering to prospectors. The story then fades into the long rise and quick fall of Levi Strauss, a manufacturer whose 501 jeans were the most successful clothing item in the world and whose annual sales tanked by nearly half in recent years.

The history of jeans in America hardly wants for fascinating tidbits—who knew, for instance, that regional denim companies once occupied positions of civic pride now enjoyed almost exclusively by microbrews.

Unfortunately, Sullivan’s tidbits are more interesting than his overarching narrative. Much of what’s stitched together is tough for those not already entrenched in the history of fashion to get excited about. Sullivan does an admirable job historicizing the major shifts in denim’s ascendance—the slow transition from a workingman’s trouser to something gender nonexclusive and fit for casual wear. Then, more recently, to high-end fashion with designer jeans blasting past the $400 mark.

However, the story lacks anything close to urgency. Surely, what kind of jeans we choose and how we opt to wear them is indicative of our social aspirations, sexuality, and class. But in a consumer culture where customization is factored into so many products, the same can just as easily be said about our sneakers, T-shirts, cell phones—should I continue?—OK then: our iPods, car dashboards, etc. Let’s not even get started on MySpace.

And yes, jeans are iconically American, but however many ways Sullivan might wish to restate this, it does nothing to quell the question that haunts these pages: So what? This is all this critic could ask as Sullivan catalogs what seems to be every movie star of consequence to wear denim. Then it’s out of the theater and into the streets: Student revolutionaries of the ’60s in denim, punks in denim, disco in denim, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. album cover. Are you tired yet?

What truly tries one’s patience is not merely the obsessive cataloging, but the author’s tendency toward the kind of hyperbole one might expect from a denim trade-association. Sullivan’s claims that jeans have “defined” every youth movement for the last half-century and “embody American creativity and rebellion” are hard to digest. Are we really to believe that the Beats, SDS, and SNCC were all cut from a fabric? That their revolutions might’ve been halted, or even significantly altered, by a lesser pant?

However, just when you’re convinced there’s nothing more to learn about jeans, Sullivan puts his finger on a trend that’s disturbing, fascinating, and perhaps most-telling about what American jeans have become: a concept. Just as Levi’s shuttered its last U.S. manufacturing plant two years ago, most of the high-end jeans on the lucrative boutique market are little more than a marketing team with a relationship to foreign suppliers. Jeans created for, and worn by, generations of working Americans are now as redundant as so many of their livelihoods. Now that our jeans have shifted offshore, it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re more of an American brand extension than a reality—even if they’re still happily covering the great American backside.

 


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